No Free Rides, No Excuses: Stand and Deliver (1988)
Stand and Deliver was a staple in my high school classrooms, especially when the teachers didn’t feel like teaching for a day. It has math in it, so we could watch it in math class, and it has some lines in Spanish, so we could watch it in Spanish class too. It was one of those movies that I watched as a kid that I knew was good, but I wasn’t necessarily drawn in by it. I don’t think I fully understood it at the time. I was looking for a story of students overcoming adversity when it was actually a story of a lone teacher trying to make a difference.
Stand and Deliver tells a classic story: a teacher inspires a class to learn math, but that gets very little attention in the movie. What it focuses on instead is the students gaining confidence. They’re taught to see a future for themselves beyond the factory, beyond the streets, and beyond their father’s restaurant. That’s not to say that Jaime Escalante doesn’t teach these kids math. He does a lot of that. He brings them from understanding basic fraction concepts and multiplication tables to taking the AP Calculus test, but it isn’t easy. He has to fight parents that want to take their kids out of school. He has to fight the school board who doesn’t believe the kids can pass the test. He has to fight the AP test graders, who think the positive results must be from the students cheating.
These fights also impact Jaime. In devoting so much time to these students, he ignores his wife and son. He also works himself into a minor heart attack. These side effects are only touched on momentarily. We only see glimpses of Jaime’s personal life, and the heart attack only sets him back for a scene or two. Jaime doesn’t seem to doubt whether the effort he’s putting into this class is worth the pain he’s causing himself and his family. Even after the AP graders dispute the results of the test and invalidate the past year of his life, the only reason he’s frustrated is because the kids have lost hope. He doesn’t feel like his own time has been wasted, just sad that the kids have “lost the confidence in the system they're now finally qualified to be a part of.”
Jaime has no doubts that what he’s doing is the right choice, or really any doubts at all. There’s a certain kind of nobility to this sort of character - he knows what is right and fights for that end - but at the same time, it’s a little boring to watch. It’s also a little bit unrealistic. Jay Matthews, who wrote a book on the real life story that this movie was based on, found evidence that at least a few of the students really did cheat on the AP test. In the movie, Jaime never for a second considers the fact that he might have put too much pressure on the kids, leading them to cheat on a test to make him happy. That idea is brought up to him by one of the AP investigators (played perfectly by an incredibly baby-faced Andy Garcia), but he brushes right past it and instead accuses the investigators of basing their accusations purely on the race of his students.
The flatness of his character aside, this movie does have a lot going for it. Edward James Olmos does an outstanding job portraying Jaime, bringing a quiet confidence and conviction to the character. He makes it very easy to understand why these kids love their teacher and why they would devote their summer to his class. Lou Diamond Phillips also has a great performance as a tough guy who tries to maintain that image while growing increasingly interested in math. All of the students are well written and portrayed. These students don’t fit neatly into the stereotypes we usually see in high school movies. They’re all just kids in a rough situation who are realizing that there’s more to life than what their parents have planned for them.
That contrast is what makes this film work, but also what makes Jaime such a frustrating character. It might be strange to see such a dynamic cast of characters be led by such a static one, but his confidence in his convictions is what convinces them to follow him. His conviction is probably what inspired my teachers to show this in their classes, too. They aspired to be as devoted to their students as Escalante was to his. It’s a noble goal. It just might not be realistic.